Employability: panacea or Pandora’s box?

The purpose of higher education goes beyond just giving students economically valuable skills. It’s time universities challenge the employability narrative, says Audrey Songhurst 

May 17, 2019
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If we take it as axiomatic that an important aspect of higher education is to encourage students to ask deep questions and challenge existing assumptions, the sector itself must be seen to practise what it preaches. This means challenging the dominant employability discourse that fails to give equal weighting to all notions of human flourishing, seeing it only in financial terms, and which presents a reductionist view of higher education and impoverishes the concept of employability.  

Universities play a significant part in shaping student and graduate identity, and this identity is increasingly aligning with the dominant discourse in terms of the perceived importance of what is referred to in the 2006 Leitch report, “Prosperity for all in the global economy – world class skills”, as “economically valuable skills”.  

While aspects associated with human flourishing are being advocated for and implemented at a local level through learning and teaching strategies, universities do not appear to be raising concerns about the one-dimensional employability and skills discourse at a national level.

This failure to be critical of these assumptions behind policy and practice has allowed the broader debate about the purpose of higher education to be hijacked by a political employability and skills narrative which, to date, has failed to deliver on its claims. 

This failure is acknowledged within a 2017 report produced by the Institute for Government, which refers to further education and skills reform as “the worst failure of domestic British public policy since the Second World War [with] twenty-nine major reforms of vocational education since the early 1980s. 

“In less than four decades, there have been 28 major pieces of legislation, 48 secretaries of state with relevant responsibilities and no organisation focused on skills policy has survived longer than a decade.”

Yet, although universities have, as part of their accepted remit over a number of years, engaged with and delivered against the employability agenda, they have not collectively sought to challenge the dominant discourse by creating a sector narrative that articulates and advocates both the quantitative and qualitative benefits of higher education. 

In his book A University Education, former universities minister David Willetts states that: “Universities should not be afraid to analyse their own value, using tools they themselves have developed for others.”

The powerful and persuasive rhetoric driving the employability and skills narrative is a barrier to the message that personal development is important finding its way into the dominant discourse. Those rhetoricians behind the employability discourse could just as easily utilise their influence and rhetorical skills to advocate for the human flourishing elements of higher education as they do for the “economically valuable skills” argument.

But there are two reasons why they do not. The first is to do with the fact that, at a political level, there is currently neither the inclination nor the method to capture the non-economic contribution of the higher education sector to the individual and society. An October 2017 Times Higher Education article demonstrates that this view is also held at the highest and most influential levels, with no indication of imminent change. Andres Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, said that he accepted the criticism that the organisation puts too much emphasis on earnings returns in its evaluation of higher education systems. 

“It’s a very narrow, very limited, very instrumental view.  We are only capturing a fraction of the outcomes,” he said. The solution, according to Schleicher, is to measure learning gain directly, which would make it possible to gauge the social and emotional skills that people have as a result of university study rather than just the instrumental value. 

However, as the article points out, the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project which attempted to measure those skills “was blocked from implementation after key nations, including the UK, failed to support it”. 

The second reason rhetoricians don’t advocate these skills relates to the determined push by government, in the face of ever increasing participation in higher education, to expand vocational education.  The 2016 Enterprise Act announced the creation of a new independent body, the Institute of Apprenticeships, as well as the introduction of an apprenticeships levy. These initiatives aim to facilitate the implementation of the government’s commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. The government’s prioritisation of apprenticeships is in stark contrast to consistently negative depictions of universities.

Indeed, higher education is currently under intense scrutiny on a number of fronts and the role of universities is changing rapidly in a pluralistic, global marketplace fraught with challenges and uncertainties.   

Employability is now perceived to be an integral part of a university education, with the ever increasing emphasis on skills contributing to the notion that higher education is there mainly to improve the employability of graduates. 

This shift in narrative has diminished almost to the point of extinction the holistic view of the purpose of higher education communicated in the 1963 Committee on Higher Education report chaired by Lord Robbins.

The absence of a sectoral counter-narrative reinforces the political positioning of employability as manifest common sense and perpetuates a neoliberal discourse that has infiltrated the collective consciousness, profoundly influenced our views about the fundamental purpose of higher education and has the potential to radically change practice.  

Audrey Songhurst has just retired from a 20-year career in higher education, most recently working as head of operations in Kent Innovation and Enterprise at the University of Kent. In October 2018 she completed her doctorate in education at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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Print headline: University is about more than skills

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Reader's comments (3)

Agreed wholeheartedly. For a start, how many people go into a position directly related to their degree subject (unless they're medics), let alone are working in that field several years later? However, if they have learned to think, and learned to learn, they can find success in virtually any subject. I should know. First degree & some research in botany... and now I'm in a Computer Science department at a university, via a spell in a software house, some consultancy, webmastering and teaching in FE. I don't often think about plants these days, but use the skill of finding things out on a daily basis.
I agree with your sentiments but we will never return to the Universities we had in the 1960s and before unless we massively reduce the size of the sector and the number of undergraduates. Universities today gobble up too much money for a relatively poor return on investment. We are still able to deliver the old style of education in Oxbridge, Durham and a few other, smaller Universities but it would be pointless to try and do the same for 300,000 new undergraduate students every year at over 130 sites and cost far too much. Most Universities are now degree factories and should be renamed.
Having tried twice to understand the message of this 'document' I've now given up on it's dense and pompous language. The strange thing is I THINK I agree with some sentiments lurking just below the surface. For the record, I've written on both employability and skills using this medium before, and I've made my position clear. It is my belief that the pursuit of any employability skills through any University curriculum is expensive, counter productive, fraudulent and fruitless. Universities DO NOT train undergraduates and they SHOULD NOT even try; leave that to employers. Employers are better equipped to recruit and to train their staff and they are better positioned to judge whether an employee can cut THEIR mustard. The verbiage associated with this subject introduces tensions we can do without and it introduces expenditure we can ill afford. The use of the word SKILL is now becoming offensive to me because I've yet to have anybody rise to the challenge of defining what one is. The challenge is still there. If a skill can't be defined how can we possibly pursue its various manifestations??

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Universities in most nations are now obliged to prioritise graduate career prospects, but how it should be approached depends on your view of the meaning of education. Academics need to think that through much more clearly, says Tom Cutterham

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